GCSE results soared to a new record yesterday as more than two-thirds of entries achieved a grade C or better.
But the news was tarnished by a small drop in the percentage of English entries achieving A*-C grades, the first in eight years.
Boys closed the A*-C grade performance gap with girls slightly. But the already substantial gender gap among top achievers widened even further with nearly a quarter of female GCSE entries now gaining an A or A* grade.
Overall the percentage of entries given A and A* grades rose from 20.7 to 21.6 per cent, compared to the 8.6 per cent who achieved the top grade 21 years ago.
That fact, together with the increase in A*-C grades from 65.7 to 67.1 per cent - the 21st in a row - is likely to prompt familiar accusations that GCSEs are getting easier.
Vernon Coaker, schools minister, said: "It's a strange thing when a country chooses to do down the achievement of its young people when so much time and effort has been invested by teachers, parents and pupils. In many countries, exam results are celebrated by the media."
He argued that "far from lowering the bar", the Government had made it harder for schools by introducing the 5 A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths benchmark.
This year's fall in English entries gaining A*-C grades from 62.9 to 62.7 per cent could be damaging for some schools in the winter league tables, particularly as secondaries where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils hit the benchmark are threatened with closure under the National Challenge scheme.
But the Government was predicting that no more than 280 schools would remain below that target, down from 631 two years ago.
Performance in maths was up, with 57.2 per cent of entries achieving the top four grades, compared to 56.3 per cent in 2008. Science was up on the same measure by 0.9 percentage points to 60.2 per cent.
The Conservatives attempted to broaden out the usual debate over standards beyond grade inflation with an analysis of what subjects were taken.
Official figures obtained by the party showed that in 2008 only 23.7 per cent of pupils achieved five or more A*-C GCSEs, including what it described as the "core" subjects of English, maths, science and a modern foreign language.
This represented a fall from 30.4 per cent in 2001, which Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, described as a "terrible indictment of the Government's record".
Iain Wright, schools minister, said the Tory benchmark was misleading because it included a language, something that many chose not to study. This year's figures showed language entries continuing to decline, with French down by 6.6 per cent and German down by 4.2 per cent, although Spanish entries were stable. ICT had a further decline in entries of 14.1 per cent but the increased uptake of separate sciences continued (see table).
Overall, 24.4 per cent of female entries achieved the top two grades compared to 18.7 of entries from boys. Girls were also in front on A*-Cs, with 70.5 per cent of female entries achieving the grades compared to 63.6 per cent of boys.
A late Easter meant this year's results were nearly a week later than normal, prompting fears of a scramble for sixth-form places.